When Football Comes To Town

I’ve turned the sporting world on its head in 2016.  After years of watching football each year I’ve slowly watched less and less to the point I viewed maybe three games in 2016 catching one from start to finish.  The old me would take in a full game at least once a week.  I can’t help but raise some questions.

The questions I have with the sport are philosophical, mental and economical but they are all things that I wrestle with.  I never played, something that at one time I wished I had but as time goes on I’m pretty thankful that I chickened out when the football coach told me I would make a pretty good linebacker.  I think he was drunk when the 140-pound-me was sitting in the lunch room of my high school as he told me I could play.

Yes I’d be awesome as a sled dummy.  Please just run me over.  This was before the days of Will Smith’s “Concussion” and the recognition by the medical community. As well as the family of retired players that blows to the head can cause serious long term damage.  The NFL however, sees dollar signs instead of stop signs and wants whatever cash deliveries it can get – health be damned!

Damned if I’m convinced that they even care about the players feelings either.  One week a player can wear pink shoes to support a worthy cause but the next week their cleats memorialize a respected fallen journalist and that’s a 15K fine.  Nah.  It shouldn’t work that way. Meanwhile guys are jumping into huge vats with the Salvation Army logo on them and that is okay.  Guys are beating their girlfriends and wives, guys are driving drunk, guys are walking around with illegal loaded weapons, guys are doing drugs and making complete asses of themselves.  But we don’t suppose a wide receiver should pay tribute to a man who tried his best to fight leukemia, a disease that we still don’t have a cure for – even though we throw so much money at wars.  Can someone please explain why we can’t cure diseases?

We would still rather fine individuals for protesting or memorializing those who tried to make people’s lives better.  It’s become a circus run by a ring master who is propped up in a bigtop of low to middle class individuals.  The more that these individuals watch, buy and attend these games the more this drama will continue.  The more that these players will get screwed.

In a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, a study showed that the average NFL career is 2 and a half years.  Imagine the punishment these players have taken their WHOLE lives.  Now think about the fact that if these guys come into the league as rookies, they aren’t making millions and millions, and if they get hurt they have to come to a settlement with the team. Can you imagine you’ve spent your entire life training and doing everything to work this job.  What if that is the only skill you have?  What if this job scrambled your brain because of all the hits you took?  The NFL doesn’t care because you weren’t there long enough to matter.  The NFL doesn’t care because it accept the CTE findings.

The January 2017 edition of GQ includes a story about a former Iowa high school football player, Zac Easter, who gave his life for football.  He grew up in a football family, his father was a small college coach, and his two brothers played the game.  He wasn’t the most talented kid but he would never stop moving like that bunny in the battery commercial. Many times he said he got his bell run but he just got right back up – this was before the CTE diagnosis and the focus on pulling kids out when there was even a hint of a concussion.  Through his high school career he had three confirmed concussions before the team doctor forced him to quit his senior season.  Who knows how many he had during practice or when he simply fought the diagnosis because he wanted to go back in and play defense as the star linebacker.

After graduation he struggled with headaches, memory loss and depression.  Zac was convinced he had CTE after reading about it and kept a journal detailing the pain that he experienced.  He also left a semi-last will explaining that he wanted his brain to be left for science so it could be studied to see if he truly had CTE.  He wanted his family to share his story as a warning of what concussions can do.  The power of the first hand account can be haunting but especially so in Zac’s case.

When Zac couldn’t take it anymore he took his own life – something that his family doesn’t understand.  His father drinks to ease the pain, refusing to take counseling and his mother wants to find something to help others.  But what is there?  Ban football?  Not going to happen.  Make kids wait to play?  Kids will not wait to play.  New equipment? This hasn’t stopped anything.  We’ve seen players evolve over the years to become bigger and stronger and faster.  Each year players try to get an edge over the other.  There is a fine line that unfortunately I think we’ve crossed over and I don’t think we’ll get back.

Some would argue that they are adults and they know the risks, but the players start as children and by the time CTE sets in they may as well be children again.  It’s an extremely difficult decision to wrestle with.  But I don’t believe I can do it anymore. There are way too many people who spend their lives with mental problems because of this game that never get help.  We don’t know how to help them.  Is it worth it?  It’s up to us to decide.  Wise men once said “Cash rules everything around me.”  As I grow older I can’t help see this never stops being the case.

Hard Knocks and Hard Hits – Walking the Fine Line

Over the summer the city of Los Angeles welcomed back a football team and maybe even a piece of their identity.  Along with the usual cast of superhuman men, knowledgeable coaches and trainers, staff and everything that comes with an NFL team came a camera crew.  Not just any camera crew but the crew of HBO’s award winning series Hard Knocks.

In case you’ve missed Hard Knocks over the years, you’ve missed meeting players and staff who have shown what’s like inside the training rooms and huddles of pro teams who allowed access to some of the inner sanctums to millions of fans worldwide.  I was late to the party as I started watching Hard Knocks in the 2013 campaign when they returned to the Cincinnati Bengals to see what I felt was a pretty bland series.  It was not the fault of the show itself, just maybe the cast of characters never drew me in and I never felt a connection.

When the series moved south to the ATL in 2014, I was taken by coach Mike Smith’s down home demeanor and his genuine concern for the players.  Watching his interaction in his office between player and coach there seemed to be a sense of feeling that the coach wanted his players to succeed on their terms not just his.  Some coaches want to scream and dig their heels in the dirt as if to say “Here I am get in line behind me.”  Not Smith, his message was “I want you to do your best and I want to be there to encourage you.”  Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff created a culture of family – something that welcomed the rookies and vets alike.  I found it one of my favorite out of the three I had seen.

In 2015, the Houston Texans opened training camp with their number one draft pick of 2014, Jadeveon Clowney, returning from injury and the film crew there to document the process.  Between Clowney and fellow defensive player J.J. Watt you’d think there would be no shortage of footage of that side of the ball.  However, the Texans struggled mightily in finding a quarterback between the talented-but-raw Ryan Mallett and journeyman Brian Hoyer.  Mallett did himself no favors and the quarterback battle whether made for television or real seemed to come down to who could less mistakes.  Sadly I was more interested in J.J. Watt’s training camp routines and Charles James’ sock game.

Going into the 2016 season, HBO announced they would follow the Rams to Los Angeles and I rejoiced.  Not because I’m a Rams fan but because some Bills fans had hoped that they would follow the Bills.  Egads!  Little did I realize, in 2011 Hard Knocks had followed the wind bag known as Rex Ryan and the Jets around in training camp.  That would have been terrible.  I can barely keep it together when I hear Rex Ryan and Bills in the same sentence.  Is there some conspiracy there?  I keep telling myself I went through four straight Super Bowls with this team.  Each was worse and worse.  I went through that Music City garbage – and that was a forward pass too!  They hired the damn coach I hate the most on my birthday, then they hired his damn brother on the day after my birthday the following year.  Now I’m holding out for him to be fired.  The only thing I can see being worse is they’ll fire him this year and replace him with Jim Harbaugh.

I’m going to go find Anthony Anderson and we’ll burn that mother down.

I have to move on and fast.

Speaking of fast – Austin Hill.  Come on Jeff Fisher, really?  Maybe it’s the dad in me but really?  I didn’t see him play in preseason and I didn’t see him away from the field but I only saw what was on the show but man that was brutal.  The cut of him?  You couldn’t give him a practice spot or something?  He’s got talent and he’s a little small but he’s got something there.

The resemblance between defensive lineman Ian Seau and his uncle Junior is haunting.  It’s incredible.  Ian is quick but he gets pushed around leading the Rams to cut him.  Everyone keeps repeating this is a business.  This is a business.  Coach Fisher talked about the lead up to cut down day and how he couldn’t keep everyone.  Someone had to go and it was going to be the end of someone’s dream.  That’s the reality of this thing.  Smash.  Hulk smash.  As much of a good guy as he seems he’s also a realist.

I thought about what he said about the end of a dream. I watch how these guys just fight and fight for these spots while men like number one draft pick Jared Goff can stand there and watch them march off to their doom.  These “fringe” players work their asses off while the future of the franchise players show “potential” so they don’t have to worry about their spot.  It’s not fair.  Sure fair is where you go to ride the rides and eat cotton candy.  However does it make it any easier, hell no.  As that “fringe” player, how are you supposed to take that?  What are you supposed to do?  Some people would say pick yourself up and move on but for some of these guys this is everything they’ve dreamed of and worked their entire lives for.

I look at myself.  I’m lucky in a way – I knew from the start I would never play in the NHL and I would never play hockey.  But looking at basketball.  From the beginning I wanted to play further than the YMCA and I never even got to high school basketball.  I never had a coach tell me I was not good enough but I knew I was not good enough from playing against other players my age that I would not be able to compete on a level big enough to make it to high school basketball.  How do you tell yourself at such a young age that you can never do the one thing you want to do?  I don’t know how I did it.  I just did.  Now I just want to be able to contribute as a hockey player.  I just want to be able to get on the ice and help my team.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to do that.  That’s a struggle as well and I’m feeling that feeling again.  It’s hard to describe but I just want to be able to help the team succeed but without being able to do anything productive I’m not pulling my fair share of the rope.

One of the players kept, defensive lineman William Hill said he didn’t believe in dinosaurs in one episode but he believes in mermaids.  He said he can’t believe in something that man hasn’t seen.  I’m just curious as to when someone last saw a mermaid?  Does anyone have any mermaid skeletons in any museums anywhere?

I found myself laughing when out of nowhere Jeff Fisher’s son Brandon, the defensive backs coach, screamed NAF!  Non-Athletic Fuck.  I guess you had to see it in context.  Once it caught on, it spread like wildfire.

Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, can coordinate like a champ.  Okay – that’s a terrible description but damn he’s good.  This is the same Williams who was involved in all that “Bountygate” crap.  He survived all that.  You know he can coach.

Then there is head coach Jeff Fisher.  Jeff Fisher is like former Atlanta Falcons and current Tampa Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith in that he is very down to Earth and genuinely interested in the player.  However, when the series starts he cuts starting quarterback Nick Foles over the phone.  It seems very odd and cold until you start to realize that the team just moved to Los Angeles and drafted ex-California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff with the first pick in the NFL draft.  Foles was sure to know that the cut was coming.  Fisher for his part doesn’t just cut Foles, he engages with the player before cutting him.  He even goes so far as to ask him about his summer and gives him a ringing endorsement as well as a promise to endorse him to any teams that should call about him.  You don’t hear that every day.

There are times during the show where you see Fisher speak to players and you wonder how it’s going to turn out.  One player gets terminated because he violated a camp rule and brought a female to his room – “that’s 7 and 9 shit.”  Hilarious.  Don’t break Fisher’s rules.  But if you trust Fisher he’ll make you a better player.  Even if you probably should have been cut.

Defensive back Lamarcus Joyner walks off the field during one sequence of plays because he’s not included with the first team in the reps.  He tells defense secondary coach Dennard Wilson in no uncertain terms that fuck it the Rams can have their money back that he’s done.  Nice.  Those fringe players would no doubt be cut –  I get it.  However the next time Lamarcus is supposed to be on the field he’s not there.  Director of Player Engagement La’roi Glover (damnit I’m getting old I remember when all these guys were actually playing) tells coach Fisher that no one can find Joyner and Glover is going to find him.  Glover returns with Joyner in street clothes to the practice field.  A meeting is set with coach Fisher where Joyner tells the coach that he’s done with the Rams because he needs to know whether he’s starting or not.  It’s not about the money the Rams can have their money but don’t waste his time or their time.  He can bag groceries or he can go to another team.  Odd.  He just doesn’t know if he has it left.

I’m left completely confused.  I get that he can make plays.  But either he wants to be out there or he doesn’t.  There’s guys like Austin Hill out there looking for one roster spot and this guy doesn’t get reps with the first team so he wants to go bag groceries?  Alright fair.  So what does coach say?  He tells him about Steve McNair getting knocked out a game and going to the hospital.  In the hospital he told coach that he was done.  He was going to be the number 2 quarterback and he didn’t have it in him anymore to be “the guy.”  So the next game there’s less a minute left and the team is down with the ball back and McNair leads them down the field to win the game.

Apparently that was all it took to convince Joyner that not only was it in him but that coach was behind him.  You know it doesn’t seem fair.  I know the fair is blah blah blah.  Maybe Joyner has some level of talent above Hill.  Maybe I’m a little more biased to Hill and it’s Fisher’s job to see football.  That’s why he’s been there.  I’m seeing the outside in.   Maybe Joyner should have been cut?  No?

It’s things like that and the issue of Tre Mason that leave me questioning football.  Oh Tre Mason.  The running back that wasn’t brought up in the series?  He’s on the reserve list for the Rams because over the off-season he had some run-ins with police.  Some very odd run-ins having to do with ATVs and police chases and according to his mother he was not “acting right.”  He’s listed on the reserve list because he “did not report” and the Rams say he hasn’t been in contact with coaches or teammates but the problem seems to go deeper.  His mother believes that Mason is suffering from issues stemming from contact to the head during his days in football and possibly CTE complications.  She equates his mental state to that of a middle-schooler and doesn’t believe he should ever play football again.

There’s a fine line that we as football fans have to walk.  It’s a line we must walk from high school to college to the pros.  For all of us that love to see a good hit, we have to realize that these are not robots hitting each other but two humans with brains sloshing around in their skulls.  If Mason was hit hard enough during his developmental years those events of trauma could have slowly built up over time and cause his progression to the man that even his family doesn’t recognize.  Brain injuries in football are real no matter how much professional football wants to cover it up.

No matter how much they want to dispute things like Concussion, no matter how much they want to dispute scientific fact, no matter how they don’t want you to think about it and hand over you money – this is real life.  We are really paying people to hit each other just like we do in boxing, MMA and other sports (yes hockey).  Just like in football we need to be very careful about concussions.  The brain is what keeps us going and keeps us from regressing or even dying.  Once we take too many blows to the head our body can slow down or turn into a child-like form.  To many, this is what Mason is beginning to sound like.  It’s unfortunate because he is only 23 years old.  I can’t imagine what he will have to go through for the rest of his life.  I can’t imagine what life must look like to him right now either.  The rest of must struggle to walk the fine line.

The NFL and Brains

So recently three young men called it quits on their NFL careers at ages I don’t quite remember: Jake Locker (26), Jason Worilds (27) and the youngest of the three Chris Borland (24).  Each with their own reason to leave the game and each leaving millions of dollars on the table: Locker (lack of desire to play), Worilds (religious reasons) and Borland (fear of concussions).

It’s that fear of concussions, the dirty word the NFL is so worried of getting out.  After the deaths of several noteable former players including Mike Webster and Junior Seau who died from self inflicted wounds much talk has centered on chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.  CTE is caused by repetitive blows to the head and many times if you watch those old NFL Films clips from the 60s and 70s you can see the linemen swatting each other and then someone will no doubt wallop another across the head.  It’s said that people with CTE get dementia and forget things because their brain tissue is so damaged and there is so much of an uncommon protein called tau built up in the tissue.  

So if you think about it it’s kinda like physics class where you learned about Newton’s laws of motion, or at least I sorta did (as much as I love football someone should have told me this all related!).  The whole object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by another force thing? Yeah basically it means the running back will keeping going until he gets blown up by the linebacker. Yay physics! 

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?  Ah yes my favorite, when the lineman hits the center with his big mitts and the center has himself set and fires back, in the words of legendary John Madden “Boom!”  More physics!  Who knew Newton would be a football fan?  

Then there’s this next one which explains why you see big hits at the line when a backer charges in and destroys a back or wipes out a quarterback: Force=mass*acceleration. But Mr. Ghost of Red Grange you say “how does this all relate?”  Well I’ll tell you.  A 245 LB guy running at full speed hits a 220 RB  not moving, who has more force?  Why, check your equation and see the guy who is bigger and running faster is exerting more force.  Now that’s not to say the smaller guy doesn’t know how to dish out punishment too.  He still exerts force on the linebacker and at some point someone will give.

Now think about that linebacker, Chris Borland.  Much like old vehicles with big metal frames cars used to roll heavily into each other and just smash.  People say “they don’t make ’em like they used to it ” and while I see it I get it. 

The lighter cars with plastic reinforced scientifically tested bodies might dent a bit easier and maybe your bumper comes off easier but it’s meant so that the car absorbs the impact and disperses it. The old cars just took the full weight of the crash like a wrecking ball.

So what does a plastic bumper have to do with Chris Borland you ask?  Plenty.  The only thing between his head and someone wanting to rip it off is a plastic helmet.  But we are getting better.  Bravo to him for choosing his own decision while he could.  Using his brain before it got scrambled by Newton’s laws.  If only because we heard Newton cheering us on.